In his first outing conducting a regular Boston Symphony subscription concert, Assistant Conductor Andris Poga led an imaginative program Thursday consisting of Wagner’s overture to Rienzi, Lutosławski’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with soloist Garrick Ohlsson, and the Shostakovich Symphony No. 15 in A Major, op. 141. While none of these was a BSO first, the Lutosławski (his centenary was last year) and the Shostakovich are sufficiently rarely performed to have made this program a pique to curious minds and ears.
As it happens, we have heard the BSO perform both of these before, the Lutosławski in 1990 when the composer conducted it with Anthony di Bonaventura, and the Shostakovich in its first BSO performance in 1981, with the composer’s son Maxim at the podium. Although the Lutosławski/Bonaventura rendition was never recorded, one can find among a few others a stunning recording by its dedicatee, pianist Krystian Zimerman, with the composer conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Shostakovich 15, of course, has been extensively recorded, including twice by Maxim Shostakovich.
But to get back to matters at hand, despite the heroic undertaking this past September of the Odyssey Opera in performing a concert version of Wagner’s first successful opera (as even he was calling them then), the overture is all most of us ever hear of Rienzi. Written in 1842 while the composer was director of the opera house in Riga (Poga’s home town and whither he is headed to lead the Latvian National Symphony Orchestra), it is harmonically quite far from the composer of Tristan und Isolde. Yet, it displays numerous familiar elements of Wagnerian style, at which listeners can nod in recognition, from the melodically significant ornamentation figures (turns especially) to the prominent brass, to typical string figurations. That apart, it’s not one of Wagner’s best pieces, and needs the hand of a conductor who can chisel some variety from the rather stock-sounding themes and relentlessly loud dynamics (except for the famous “prayer” tune, which the opera puts at the end and the overture at the beginning, there’s hardly anything slower than fast and softer than forte). Poga did not, we’re sorry to report, sufficiently rise to this challenge, and despite some glorious brass playing, the performance was painted with too broad a brush. The tempo was fairly deliberate, the dynamics were up, up and upper, and there was not much subtlety in phrasing, pacing or anything else.
The Lutosławski is a work of the composer’s later period, from 1988, when he sought to put the innovations of his middle period, advanced dissonance, aleatory passages (that are chiefly rhythmic—Lutosławski always specified the pitches) into service of a more traditional sense of large structure and balance. And so it is with the Piano Concerto: four self-contained movements, comprising an allegro (only a metronome marking given of quarter=114), a scherzo (Presto, quarter=160), a slow movement and a passacaglia finale. The four movements are attached, but the composer observed in his program note that each had a distinct ending. Indeed, the Zimerman recording mentioned above is a model of clarity in that respect, this performance rather less so.
The opening is striking, reminding us a bit of the Ravel G major concerto, with fluttering winds. The piano’s entry changes that trajectory with a kind of tentative noodling that Ohlsson approached with great delicacy. The movement contrasts this sort of passage with sections of greater intensity and lyricism in a rather convincing, though all too brief, rapprochement with sonata form. The scherzo ought to be much more clattery and brusque, but we think Poga did not sufficiently distinguish the tempi of the two movements, so that the second seemed like a continuation of the first. The slow movement begins and ends with piano solo passages of lyric charm, sandwiching an increasingly intense orchestral peroration. The theme of the concluding passacaglia is gangly and halting, against which the piano weaves accompaniments (not sure they qualify as variations) that don’t quite match the orchestra’s phrase endings. The strings were, alas, allowed to play muddily, and the thematic repetitions, which keep any passacaglia, er, grounded, were not emphasized. It seems clear that Lutosławski was aiming at a grand synthesis with the traditional Romantic piano concerto, as filtered through Bartók more than either Chopin or Boulez, but this performance was not the best case that could be made for it. Even Ohlsson seemed overly mechanical in his approach for too much of the piece, without the gusto to complement his fearsomely capable chops.
Finally, there was Shostakovich 15, the composer’s last essay in the form and a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma (as Churchill said about some other Russian) if ever there were one. Full of quotations of his own and other people’s music, chiefly Rossini and Wagner (our theory, for which nobody asked, about the use of the William Tell Overture’s most famous tune in the first movement is that its chief motif, two shorts and a long, is a Shostakovich trope, making it a form of self-satire), it can be read as a musical autobiography or, if you prefer, as the composer taking the creative artist’s privilege of reading us his own eulogy. The first movement is the whimsical Mitya the yurodivy; the second is slow and tragic—though some people think it’s too long, it nevertheless builds with inexorable force, every note of which is essential, especially the sere dissonant chords that punctuate it; the third is sardonic (Shostakovich never wrote a happy scherzo); and finally there is the ghostly conclusion in which Shostakovich quotes and extends the brittle percussion music of his Fourth Symphony never fails to raise goosebumps, and the fact that it’s in a major key makes its spectral quality even more intense.
While not as powerful a reading as the one we remember from 1981, Poga’s was plainly following a well-considered plan. The first movement was taken fairly briskly, the better to contrast with the slow movement following, and the pacing seemed exactly right. We especially liked his suppression of the dynamics in the contrapuntal passacaglia of the finale, keeping the tension high as the volume built to a perfect dissolve. There were, in addition to the brilliant brass and percussion ensemble playing, numerous solo turns of uncommon adeptness and thoughtfulness: concertmaster-for-the-nonce Elita Kang’s several solos were raw and vulgar, just as they should be; Jules Eskin’s cello solo in the slow movement an elegant yet warts-and-all portrait of the composer; principal trombonist Toby Oft contributed greatly in several solos, and principal horn James Sommerville likewise.
Some of the patrons around us commented on the number of empty seats for this performance. Well, the BSO doesn’t pack them in the way it used to, but truth to tell, there are still a lot of people out there who don’t like Wagner. There were, however, many younger faces around, some of them, we’re sure, occupying seats vacated by victims of the cold and of unexamined prejudices. In point of fact, the house seemed better filled Thursday than it was a few weeks ago for the much more demotic Golijov St. Mark Passion, so from our vantage point things were looking up.